US News & World Report
By Nicole Hemmer
Late last week, former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin interviewed current presidential candidate Donald Trump for her show on One America News, the news channel for people who find Fox News too mainstream. (As Trump's poll numbers show, such people make up a sizable potential audience.) Both sat in front of backdrops that reflected their political lodestars: a computer-generated American flag for Palin, Trump Tower for Trump.
The interview was full of mutual admiration. Palin praised Trump as "avant-garde" and "a truth-talker"; Trump returned the compliments. But the interview also neatly captured four major developments in the Republican Party and conservative politics over the last decade.
1. The party is over. At least as it has existed for most of the 19th and 20th century. Presidential candidates used to be hand-picked by party leaders (which is how a dark horse like Warren G. Harding ended up topping the ticket, despite being virtually unknown outside his home state). Even as the politics of personality began to gain importance in presidential politics, party leaders could more or less control the slate of candidates. The nomination of Barry Goldwater in 1964 showed this system was open to manipulation, while primary reforms in the 1970s opened the floodgates for popular control of the nomination process.
Over the last decade, party leaders have largely lost control of the nomination process. This year's overstuffed roster proves the point: The Republican National Committee spent much of the last three years looking for ways to create a more orderly primary contest. it failed. And there's no reason to think it will do any better in 2020.
2. Entertainment is the warp and woof of modern politics. Palin and Trump shuttle back and forth between politics and reality television, but they are a subset of a broader trend. Political entertainment has flourished in the past several decades. From talk radio and Fox News to "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report," Americans across the political spectrum have demonstrated an appetite for a blend of politics and entertainment.
Political entertainment has a lengthy history: "Saturday Night Live" spoofing presidential debates, candidates popping up on shows like "Laugh-In" and "The Arsenio Hall Show." But today, it is also becoming an important part of candidates' resumes, particularly the revolving door between the Republican primaries and Fox News. Candidates like Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum in 2012 and Trump and Mike Huckabee in 2016 spent more time on Fox than in office in the run-up to their campaigns, a trend that has a real impact on the way candidates run.
3. Populism is back, and party leaders are at a loss for what to do about it. The more Sarah Palin "went rogue" back in 2008, the more popular she became with the party's conservative base. Her populist posturing — everything from the anti-establishment rhetoric to the thick regional accent — breathed life into the mad-as-hell tea party activism of 2009 to 2010. It lives on in Donald Trump, who lacks the working-class cred but still taps into working-class grievances, both racial and economic.
Historians have compared Trump to past politicians like George Wallace and Ross Perot, third-party candidates who fed on populist discontent with the two major parties. If Trump eventually runs as an independent, he will bedevil the GOP like Perot once did (and as Wallace bedeviled the Democratic Party). Until then, he will wreak havoc within the Republican Party, and the party establishment has thus far been unable to do anything to blunt his candidacy.
4. The categories of left and right are losing their usefulness. At the moment, the Republican field can best be sorted along the lines of establishment and anti-establishment (or experienced and unexperienced). Candidates like Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina are popular precisely because they're not politicians. Their appeal is based on posture rather than policy.
Meanwhile, conservatives tend to dismiss candidates like Jeb Bush, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio as RINOs, politicians too liberal to serve as the GOP's standard-bearer. Yet ideologically, these candidates aren't that different from Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, or for that matter, from Fiorina and Carson. Their sins are more a matter of rhetoric than policy (except for on the issue of immigration, where Jeb Bush and Rubio are far closer to Reagan and George W. Bush than Trump and anti-immigration hardliners are).
Placing the Republican field on a left-right spectrum does little to explain each candidate's popularity. Political commentators have been used to thinking in terms of conservative base versus Republican establishment, but these categories are now obscuring more than they explain.
Trump is just the latest iteration of a political moment that traces back through the tea party and Sarah Palin. It is a moment we still struggle not only to explain but to even describe. Until we learn to do so, we will remain unable to tell whether Palin, Trump and One America News are a spasmodic tick in the body politic, or part of a sea change that will remake American politics.
This article was originally published in the US News & World Report